What Being Chosen Means During a Global Pandemic

by Foster Youth Museum director, Jamie Lee Evans

I have interesting dreams.  Last night I dreamt there was a COVID-19 campaign for people to make friends instead of buying all the toilet paper they can find.  Then I woke up wondering how homeless people are supposed to shelter-in-place when they have no shelter to begin with. Then of course, my mind went to my foster youth community. Fosters – my word for anyone who has a day or more of care experience – are great survivors. Still, making friends and feeling part of a community, much less a family, is something we can really struggle with.  Even if we have a place to call home, is there anyone checking on us for weeks as we shelter-in-place?

Being chosen means a whole lot more when people are hoarding hand sanitizer, public events are cancelled, college campus housing is closing and we are told to stay inside and don’t go to work.  What happens if we run out of money to buy food? Where do we go if our campus housing closes? Who is making sure we still make rent if closures put us out of work? Who will show up when we are overcome by emotions and fears and need a genuine hug to ride out the feelings?  Who will bring us zinc lozenges and tissues? And was there ever anyone there to teach us to sneeze into our elbows?  Commitment and forever relationships seem more important now than ever before. 

Chosen: Foster Youth and Their Chosen Families still has an opening date of April 3, 2020 in Oakland.  Of course, we will let you know if anything has to change about that.  For now, here is Kevin’s chosen family story. It’s something to feel good about, although you might need to sacrifice a couple of squares of TP while reading.


Kevin appreciates the sense of belonging he has with his chosen family very much.  When his little brothers get Valentine’s Day chocolates from his mom, he gets one too. For Kevin, being chosen might mean being extra loved, because his belonging in the family is a choice, not just because he was born into it.  

Kevin met his chosen mother Samantha through a connection and their relationship just grew and grew. 

A friend of Kevin’s sat on the Board of Directors of an agency run by Samantha. That agency worked with foster youth, and Kevin was invited to join the board. The roots of their chosen family relationship began to take hold when he started babysitting for Samantha and her husband Scott.  Kevin so loved hanging out with them and their kids, Isaac and Evan, that he started calling the kids his little brothers, and Samantha started signing cards to Kevin with “Love, Mom.”

Nine years later Kevin explains what his chosen family means to him: “They are my family and it feels like I have always known them.  I know I would be lost without them.” Kevin says, “I feel most connected at their big kitchen table. That is where we eat meals, play games, do homework.  It feels good sitting at the table.” Kevin and his family get together about three times a week. They play Chess, Backgammon, and Monopoly and modern games like Dominion, and Caverna. They sometimes play heavy games that the adults can’t figure out. 

Kevin’s chosen brother Isaac is 14 and Evan is 10.  Kevin, 34, appreciates that their age difference allows him to help care for them.  Many of Kevin’s close relationships are when people care for him, but with his chosen family he gets to nurture his little brothers, and to take some load off his chosen parents.  Kevin enjoys helping with their homework, driving them around and running errands together. His favorite experience with Samantha, Scott, Isaac and Evan is simply “non-dysfunctional family stuff.”

Trauma from Kevin’s biological family experiences means that he still worries a little that he might lose his chosen family. “In the back of my mind I always have a little catastrophizing.”  Kevin’s chosen family show their love in ongoing and real ways. His mom helped him get a job, that then led to other jobs, which led to more stable food and housing. A year ago Kevin became homeless for a few months but was able to stay with his family.  He needed some significant car repair not long ago and they helped out. “I would not have had that [support] if we weren’t family.” 

It’s an amazing thing, and very different from his upbringing, for Kevin to feel peaceful and safe with his family. Being chosen means that every interaction is an opportunity to show your commitment.  At Kevin’s graduation, parents were asked to stand up during the ceremony, which Samantha did. Once when Isaac was 12, he knew to ask Kevin “are you okay?” Kevin was moved to have his little brother show this concern. After dinner and game nights, Scott always walks Kevin to his car, has a private check-in with him, and makes sure he is alright.  He asks Kevin about things they can’t discuss in front of the younger brothers, and they just shoot the breeze. Scott sometimes checks under Kevin’s car hood to make sure everything is working.  Being chosen means you look out for one another. Every interaction is an opportunity to show your commitment through loving acts.

Kevin and Isaac and Evan and Samantha and Scott will make a public proclamation of their foreverness to one another at Foster Youth Museum’s first Chosen Commitment Ceremony on April 9, 2020. 

kevin_w_family copy                                                                                                                         photo by Ray Bussolari

Chosen: Foster Youth and Their Chosen Families

What supports young people to grow in resilience, success, good health and happiness? Love, connection and belonging. For foster youth this is even more profoundly true, even though fighting for food, clothing and shelter takes up so much energy.

Join Foster Youth Museum and our latest exhibition Chosen: Foster Youth and Their Chosen Families and witness youth building their families through choosing, and through love.  The exhibition features compelling photo portraiture from Ray Bussolari and the stories from the mouths (and hearts) of youth.  The show opens First Friday (April 3, 2020) and runs for three weeks.  More information coming soon about our first ever Chosen Family Commitment Ceremony to be held on April 9, 2020.

Chosen Warehouse 416 Flyer

See Me: Portraits of Foster Youth Documenting the Higher Ed Grind

by Foster Youth Museum Executive Director, Jamie Lee Evans

Unless you come from a long line of college graduates and have lots of support to swim through high school and apply for college, post secondary educational adventures aren’t easy.  Foster youth, in particular, have to grind hard to get into and finish college. The stats that surround them are rough. Too many enter the college marketplace with multiple school changes and lots of disruption during school years among other things.  Group home foster youth may enter college under-educated because of inadequate non-public schools and their “ditto handout” busy work instead of classroom teaching. Finally, nearly all foster youth are contending with trauma to overcome while their brains are still developing.  Despite these harsh truths, more and more foster youth are applying to, entering and graduating from college. Guardian scholar programs and California legislation that supports foster youth students with housing in between semesters, tutoring and coaching, are part of what is making the difference.

When I started my work in foster youth leadership advocacy 18 years ago, I saw far fewer youth attempting college than I do today.  These days, if a youth advocate isn’t enrolled in some form of higher education, it feels unusual. 18 years ago when I asked a group of social workers if they knew what a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) was, only half of them raised their hands.  At the same focus group, the highest ranked post-emancipation resource recommended to youth by social workers? The military. Foster youth, over and again, would tell me they were advised not to apply to a four-year school because “it would be too expensive.” I insisted that foster youth were likely to get more financial aid if they showed greater need, but too few foster youth supporters knew this.

Some foster youth were applying to, attending, and graduating from, universities and vocational programs back then.  Just a lot less than now. Want a statistic? Give us a few years. Data is limited and it takes years for foster youth to get through school, and then more years to collect the data about it.  In 2000, when I was getting started in this field, the Chafee grant hadn’t yet begun and Guardian Scholar programs were few and far between.

See Me: Portraits of Foster Youth has collected 17 stories of foster youth who are planning to attend college, are in a post secondary education program or have already graduated from a university.  Alongside beautiful black and white 20×30 inch portraits shot by Ray Bussolari, there are narratives sharing their journeys. When I began interviewing youth for these stories, I was expecting to hear about the support that Guardian Scholars and other programs like that offered.  I heard those stories. I also heard about foster youth who loved school from early childhood. LaTrenda loved the experience of learning and being in a classroom from elementary school. Julia and others used school as a safe place from the chaos happening in their biological and foster families.  Nicole was inspired to succeed from her peers involved in youth leadership and advocacy programs. Darryn reminded us that higher education for foster youth will often involve starts and stops and starting again. He is on schedule to graduate with his Bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University this spring, after a more than 10 year journey.

I heard from foster youth college graduates and current students that it was important to think of higher education as a criss cross journey and not a straight line.  Foster youth who enter college as transition age youth are dealing with transition age issues. Mental health, housing, physical health, relationships, reuniting with biological family, and heck, even learning to buy an iron, a vacuum and a toaster for the first time, are all transition age issues.

Rochelle enrolled in school to have access to a shower and a place to get off the streets during the day, but other youth found it impossible to continue with school when they became homeless.  Marcy is now a junior at Cal State LA, but in her early 20’s she had to take off time when she assumed responsibility for her three younger siblings as their primary guardian. There are many reasons that youth drop out of college, but Katarina, who is about to graduate with a Master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, cautions us, “to stop promoting the low graduation rate of foster youth and focus on investing the love and resources foster youth need to reach their dreams.”  

See Me: Portraits of Foster Youth, invites you to feel the love when you explore the beauty of these photographs and read the stories of the youth who are making their way into adulthood through higher education or who are living adult lives after college.  We also ask, “How do you see yourself supporting foster youth?”

Join us in celebration of art and foster youth resilience at a reception on February 22 at 6:30 pm.  On February 25, 6:30 pm, listen to youth panelists discuss their struggles and success in college. On Feb 26, 6:30 pm, hear from youth on how spirituality has played a role in their lives.  Join us to see youth in all their strength and brilliance.  All events take place at Saint John’s Cathedral, 514 West Adams Boulevard, Los Angeles.  All events are free and free parking is available.

See Me and Foster Youth Museum is funded in part by the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, the California Wellness Foundation and MacKenzie Foundation.  We are grateful for the St John’s Cathedral and community for a generous donation of gallery space for this exhibition.

Top photo is of Katarina Kabick at UC Berkeley.  Photograph by Ray Bussolari.